French Renaissance

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The French Renaissance is roughly the period from Charles VIII of France through Henri IV of France and is said to begin with the French invasion of Italy in 1494. The reigns of François I (from 1515 to 1547) and his son Henri II (from 1547 to 1559) are generally considered the apex of the French Renaissance. After Henri II's unfortunate death in a joust, the country was ruled by his widow Catherine de Medici and her sons François II, Charles IX and Henri III, and although the Renaissance continued to flourish, the French Wars of Religion between huguenots and catholics ravished the country.

Notable developments during this period include the beginning of the absolutism in France, the spread of humanism, and the importing and development of new techniques in the fields of architecture, the arts and the sciences.




The Arts

The High Renaissance

In the late 15th century, the French invasion of Italy and the proximity of the vibrant Burgundy court (with its Flemish connections) brought the French into contact with the goods, paintings, and the creative spirit of the Northern and Italian Renaissance, and the initial artistic changes in France were often carried out by Italian and Flemish artists Jean Clouet (and his son François Clouet) and the Italians Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio and Niccolò dell'Abbate of the (so-called) first School of Fontainebleau (from 1531). Leonardo da Vinci was also invited to France by François I, but other than the paintings which he brought with him, he produced little for the French king.

The art of the period from François I through Henri IV is often heavily inspired by late Italian pictorial and sculptural developments commonly referred to as Mannerism (associated with Michelangelo and Parmigianino, among others), characterized by figures which are elongated and graceful and a reliance on visual rhetoric, including the elaborate use of allegory and mythology.

There are a number of French artists of incredible talent in this period including the painter Jean Fouquet of Tours (who achieved amazingly realistic portraits and remarkable illuminated manuscripts) and the sculptors Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the French Renaissance was the construction of the Châteaux of the Loire Valley: no longer conceived of as fortresses, these pleasure palaces took advantage of the richness of the rivers and lands of the Loire region and they show remarkable architectural skill.

The old Louvre castle in Paris was also rebuilt under the direction of Pierre Lescot and would become the core of a brand new Renaissance château. To the west of the Louvre, Catherine de Medici had built for her the Tuileries palace with extensive gardens and a grotto.

The French Wars of Religion however dragged the country into thirty years of civil war which eclipsed much artistic production outside of religious and political propaganda.

Late Mannerism and Early Baroque

The ascension of Henri IV to the throne brought a period of massive urban development in Paris, including construction on the Pont Neuf, the Place des Vosges (called the "Place Royale"), the Place Dauphine, and parts of the Louvre.

Henri IV also invited the artists Toussaint Dubreuil, Martin Fréminet and Ambroise Dubois to work on the château of Fontainebleau and they are typically called the second School of Fontainebleau.

Marie de Medici, Henri IV's queen, invited the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens to France, and the artist painted a number of large-scale works for the queen's Luxembourg Palace in Paris. Another Flemish artist working for the court was Frans Pourbus the younger.

Outside of France, working for the ducs of Lorraine, we find a very different late mannerist style in the artists Jacques Bellange, Claude Deruet and Jacques Callot. Having little contact with the French artists, they developed a heightened and extreme (and often erotic) mannerism (including night scenes and fantastic images), and excellent skill in engraving.

The period of the early 17th century shows influences from both the north of Europe (Dutch and Flemish schools) and from Roman painters of the Counter-Reformation. Artists in France frequently debated the merits between Peter Paul Rubens (the Flemish baroque, voluptuous lines and colors) and Nicolas Poussin (rational control, proportion, Roman classicism). There was also a strong Caravaggio school represented in the period by the amazing candle-lit paintings of Georges de La Tour. The wretched and the poor were featured in an almost Dutch manner in the paintings by the three Le Nain brothers. In the paintings of Philippe de Champaigne there are both propagandistic portraits of Louis XIII' s minister Cardinal Richelieu and other more contemplative portraits of people in the Catholic Jansenist sect.

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